The Land of the Falling Ego

Originally published in The Vindicator, Spring 2013

The chalkboard in my host class.  Each host class made a chalkboard for their exchange student but mine was clearly the most adorable.

The chalkboard in my host class.  Each host class made a chalkboard for their exchange student but mine was clearly the most adorable.

Kind of a Big Deal

I went to Japan for month during the summer of 2003. Shaker Heights High School had a bi-annual exchange program with sister school Takatori High. All a student had to do was host a Japanese student for three weeks and complete a weekly college-level class about the history of the country. A couple of tests, a five page paper and a complete stranger sleeping in your room for almost a month.  Not really a big deal.  But in 2003 SHHS received ten scholarships for the program and suddenly this meant more students could go.  And by “more students” I mean “my broke self”. So in order to keep it competitive, not only was the class and all its work still required, students now had to do a ten page paper, an essay on why they deserved to go, attend extra Saturday classes and work with the Cleveland Museum of Art’s latest Asian exhibit. There was a time after the summer of 2003 that if you went on the audio tour and visited the Buddhist tabernacle exhibit, you would have heard my voice describing the artifact you were looking at. I didn’t know what I was talking about exactly but I sounded very professional talking about it, so that’s cool.

Finally sixteen students were chosen to go.  We were kind of a big deal, even if only in our mind. We had worked really hard to go and in some cases (like mine) our families sacrificed a lot for us. We were better than the kids who were only going out of state that summer and we were certainly a step above the weird anime nerds that could only dream about visiting Japan someday. We were learned and tested. We were all feeling pretty proud of ourselves and of our clear intellect. Or at least I was.

Now is as good of a time as any to mention that nowhere in the previous paragraphs did I mention learning the language. That’s because we didn’t. By the time I left for the land of the rising sun I could tell you all about Tokugawa Ieyasu, why Japan entered World War II, and intricate differences between Buddhism and Shintoism, but I couldn’t ask someone where the bathroom was in Japanese. However for some reason that didn’t seem like a big deal to me.  It wasn’t until I was actually on the plane leaving Cleveland that a small voice in my head said rudely, “You know Jasmine, they have to dub Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon for a reason”.  I told her to look out at the clouds and shut up.  I was taking in my very first plane ride and I wasn’t going to let her ruin it with her “logic”.

Lack of Communication

We took the bullet train from the airport to Nara, the suburban city of our sister school.  It was when I met my host mother, warm and smiling wide, that the small voice came back and reminded me that “Konichiwa” was the extent of my Japanese greetings.

So I smiled wide and said “Konichiwa”. Ayaka, my host and now the only person in this country I knew well, introduced me to her family. I repeated their names out loud in order to commit them to memory. Japanese mom smiled politely at my thick American accent.

That small voice in my head started laughing at me and my arrogance.

Me, my hostess Ayaka, her sister Rea and their nephew.  There a lot of pictures of me not knowing what else to do with my hands outside of making a peace sign

Me, my hostess Ayaka, her sister Rea and their nephew.  There a lot of pictures of me not knowing what else to do with my hands outside of making a peace sign


That happened a lot.  I didn’t know the language and my lack of preparation was eating away at me.  That small voice went from a voice of feign concern to a mocking bitch that hated me for my arrogant oversight. I know that seems extreme to say but you have to remember I had never been outside the country.  I was used to being a minority, sure, but no matter what code switching I had to do, I could still ask for a cheeseburger and fries at McDonald’s without having to point at a picture like a three year old. Being the articulate person that older white people love to tell me I am, this was the apex of frustration.

I simply could not communicate.

To top it off, I had been taught that Japanese people smile or politely laugh to ease tension sometimes. The situation may not actually be funny but it’s more polite than to raise an eyebrow and roll your eyes. However my paranoid self, with the self-deprecating voice always cackling in the background, was convinced that they were all laughing at me. (Cue Carrie’s mother). So four days into this month long trip, I did the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done in front of strangers: I cried.

I’m not the kind of girl that likes a good cry.  Even as I type those words I have absolutely no idea what that means. So the more I cried, the more embarrassed I got.  The more embarrassed, the more frustrated.  The more frustrated, the more tears. A cycle was born.

It had started all harmlessly enough. There was a mix up as to when my family was supposed to be picking me up from a class trip. I was hungry, tired and thus a little on edge. My only close friend Anne had already gone home and the only people I was left with were the rich girls that were trying to comfort me. I realize now that all the rich girl options they were giving me didn’t help my stress.

“Can you take a taxi home?”

“No, I don’t have enough to do that”

“Well, do you have a cell phone? Maybe you can call them”

“Um…you guys have cell phones?” It was 2003.

By the time my Japanese family came, every American around was oh-so-very worried about me, which is a thoroughly uncomfortable feeling. My family, sans the translator Ayaka (she had a night class) tried to explain what happened, but I had retreated into my head by the third sentence of broken English. Didn’t they know I was lost here without them? 

A helpless feeling washed over me when I realized that I wasn’t just being dramatic.  I was actually lost without them.  I was in a country where I couldn’t read the signs, couldn’t make a phone call to someone I knew, couldn’t ask a stranger for directions. I had no control over the situation. You should know that since I was thirteen I knew I wanted to be a film director; I really like control.

So by the time we got home, I had lost all my cool.

At some point as my Japanese Mom was trying both to comfort and avoid the crying black girl, I said “I’m not even that sad; I’m just really frustrated that I can’t stop crying.”  She just stared at me.  I started to repeat the sentence and then stopped, remembering what started this in the first place.

Then I started laughing.



It scared the hell out of my Japanese mom.

I had a moment of clarity. I figured out how freeing it was not being able to talk.  If we all knew the same language, we never would have heard each other. I would have kept explaining (yelling) my point and she would have gotten defensive.  We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. But because I couldn’t be understood, I had to look into her eyes. I could tell she really wanted to help. She wanted my stay to be enjoyable. She wanted to be welcoming and was sadden she had already failed so early.

All I remember next was trying to figure out how to say I was sorry. “Gomen nasai” I said over and over again, pointing at the already worn-down single sheet of paper with “Helpful Japanese Phrases”.  Japanese Mom nodded, indicating it was all good. And it was (even though I said sorry another six more times after that incident). Any misunderstandings after that were met with patient glances and slow miming.

That stupid small voice finally shut up.

The Rest of the Trip

The rest of the trip was both memorable and understated.  I was too much of a goody two shoes to do anything remotely daring, like explore Tokyo’s nightlife scene.  At one point I performed the Cha-Cha Slide in front of an auditorium of Japanese students, but that’s the kind of thing you just have to see (or at least watch me tell in person so you can fully understand every painfully hilarious moment). I also threw one of those small white poppers during a tour in the middle of a tunnel which, let me tell you, is not the smartest thing to do in a very recent post-9/11 world. The resulting echo sounded like a small explosion and got me very stern stare down from my trying-too-hard-to-be-cool American chaperon.  But it also got me a million points in the made up game I was playing with the guys in the group (making me the coolest my nerdy- self had ever been to any guy at that point in my life) so I consider that a wash.

And then there was time my breakfast that stared back at me.  But that’s your typical “sheltered black girl vs. foreign food” story, so why rehash that? I mean, I might have even actually rolled my eyes and said “Na uh!” at the very thought at eating a whole fish with eyes still intact.

So instead I will leave you with this heartwarming coda.  My Japanese family turned out to be rather cool people.  The younger sister Rae and I bounded over anime and music.  Ayaka, my host, was a wonderful tour guide and taught me some words along the way.  Dad worked six days a week about twelve hours a day, so I only saw him three times.  But on the last day together he gave me the “black nod” (which clearly needs to be renamed), so we had an understanding. And mom took me to the library. Somehow she just knew that would be my home away from home.  Yes, before you ask, they had an English section and so I spent my downtime reading The Green Mile (rather than just looking at a TV I didn’t understand).

On the last day the entire family took me back to the train station.  Akaya and Dad made a joke at Mom’s expense and I asked Ayaka what just happened.  She translated, “Well Mom had been going to that library a month before you arrived to learn about America.  But she obviously didn’t pick up much on the language” and she laughed again in that loving way only family can do. Mom laughed that same embarrassed laugh she did when she first heard my thick American accent. It was a nice final family moment.

Then it clicked.

She wasn’t just being polite when she smiled as I mispronounced Japanese words.  She was trying the best way she knew how to make this whole thing less painful for me, as she wanted her teasing family to do for her.  And she wasn’t just doing out of some sort of cultural based politeness; she actually was empathizing. A woman I couldn’t say more the twenty words to actually cared about me.

I hugged her extra hard when I said “Sayonara”.

My host mother the day I arrived.  Please note the t-shirt.

My host mother the day I arrived.  Please note the t-shirt.